Dancing the Nervous System
What is the the science behind relaxation?
How do we alter our nervous systems with mindfulness?
By choosing different states of being, we can "dance" our nervous system, learning how to adapt to various situations, and move through different states to choose those that benefit.
the Nervous System
When you meditate for one minute a day, you re-design your body.
Mindfulness, or meditation, acts on three levels:
"systemic", or the whole body level
cellular, at the level of these beautiful small building blocks
genetic, modifying how our spiral libraries of possible selves get translated
By simply exhaling one long breath, you engage a system called the "parasympathetic nervous system" or PSNS. Let's call it the "Para" for short. The Para engages muscle relaxation, rest and digest mode, and chills out the rate of your heart beats, slows your breath, brings down your blood pressure, and sets your brain into a different state. The different brain state is called "alpha brainwave state", let's call it Daydream Brain for short. Not only do you engage Daydream Brain, you also calm the Amygdala, which is the area of fear, flight, freeze, and fight. So you step into more calm.
So the Para:
slows heart speed
slows breath speed
brings down blood pressure
calms the Amygdala
shifts your state to Daydream Brain
The practice of meditation takes this one step further. Not only does meditation or mindfulness strengthen your Para tendencies or habits, it also shifts your hormones. By changing the mode of the HPA Axis, - the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adreanal axis - mindfulness reduces stress chemicals like cortisol, and in this way can contribute to weight loss around the waistline, as well as a rebalancing of sex hormones. This happens because, when the body doesn't need to "steal" building blocks for cortisol from other hormones like testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone, then the building blocks are still available for these sex hormones. DHEA and Growth Hormone, among other hormones, are increased, and this leads to more lean muscle mass. When these two hormones are stimulated, there is also action via thyroid stimulating hormone and prolactin that supports a strong metabolism. So, in summary, a regular meditation practice can do the following:
downshift HPA activity
bring down cortisol
rebalance sex hormones
boost DHEA and Growth Hormone
help you lose weight around the midline
Studies at UCLA have shown that even meditating or practicing mindfulness for 1 minute a day, leads to weight loss over one month's time. For those of you interested in weight loss, or seeing a physical shift in response to your mindfulness practice, you can measure your waist before and after one month of daily mindfulness.
The Vagus Nerve
Mindfulness tones a large nerve in the body called the Vagus Nerve. There are also vagus nerve stimulating devices that you can use, but you can simply empower yourself to activate the VN by simply sitting still and focusing on the breath.
By consciously spending time in Para mode, you strengthen the tone of your VN.
The VN connects to many body systems. For example, when you get a "gut reaction", it's a reaction of your VN to whatever is happening, positive or negative, bad or good, or neutral. Ideally, we want to cultivate a way to view many things from a neutral standpoint, as this allows the whole system to become more responsive and adaptive, so that behaviour and thoughts and actions can be chosen, rather than out of our control.
The VN is the tenth cranial nerve, and it reaches from the brain stem to the abdomen along many key organs, such as the heart, the lungs, and the esophagus which connects your stomach to your throat. The VN is triggered when we have stress, to balance out the fight, flight, fear, or freeze response that is activated by the sympathetic nervous system, or Sympa for short.
Health care practitioners can tell how strong your VN is when they observe your heart rate as your breathe in and out. When we breathe in there is a small increase in heart rate, and when we breathe out, there is a small decrease in heart rate. This change is called the "heart rate variability", or HRV. Let's call it the HRV, the Heart Flex, as when it is a wider difference, that means there is more flexibility of the heart, which is protective from heart attack, and shows that you are adaptive to stress. You can increase your Heart Flex by practicing positive emotions, like loving kindness, compassion, happiness, joy, and tenderness.
When your VN is toned, and Heart Flex wide, then you have:
flexible emotional responses to strong stimuli
good heart health
good overall health
less risk of heart attack
more branches to your neurons
In addition to increasing VN tone my mindfulness, you can also increase it by:
a lot of cardio exercise
long distance running
Dancing your Systems
So how do you apply this?
Classic mindfulness and meditation exercises will help you engage your Para and your VN. Given my understanding of the research to date, it seems optimal to combine the various techniques:
regular cardio exercise
mindfulness after with deep breathing
cultivate positive emotions
daydream of positive scenarios: past, present, or future
practice mindfulness daily
practice yoga which combines movement, positive emotion, and deep breathing
Then notice, when stress occurs, if you can "shift state" by deep breathing, thus activating the VN and potentially pepper in a bit of daydreaming mode, while focusing on feeling a positive emotion in the centre of your chest. You might synthesize these three by imaging that you are breathing in a beautiful colour, or twinkling oxygen, or sunlight, and breathing out the stress.
Be playful, explore your ability to shift mode in various situations.
As you do so, also notice if you have to shift down to relax mode often, and, if so, perhaps you are needing to more relax too often and need to shift some elements of your day to day life to demand less of yourself.
Wishing you the best,
Dr. M. ~
Meditate Your Weight, book by Tiffany Cruikshank, 2016.
Feeling Stressed? Researchers at IU are studying how stress reshapes the brain. Rachel Skipper, January 17, 2017. Popular literature, Indiana University.
Mindfulness Meditation improves connections in the brain. Carolyn Schatz, April 8, 2011. Popular literature, Harvard Health Blog.
Izquierdo et al, 2006. Brief Uncontrollable Stress causes dendritic retraction in infralimbic cortex and resistance to fear extinction in mice. In: The Journal of Neuroscience.